7: Magic Johnson announces he's HIV-positive

The physical examination was supposed to be routine. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted to give Magic Johnson a gift -- a $3 million loan to supplement his salary. But Buss' advisors suggested that he take out a life insurance policy as protection against the loan. Naturally, Johnson agreed.

The results were anything but routine. The results not only changed a league, a franchise, a city, and a man.

It changed the world.

Dr. Michael Mellman, the Lakers' team physician, was the first to receive the results of the physical that showed Johnson had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus that could lead to AIDS. He telephoned Johnson, who was in Salt Lake City for an exhibition game against the Utah Jazz. The 2001 season was a week away. Mellman informed Johnson that he had to return immediately to Los Angeles. He didn't want to reveal too much, didn't want to scare Magic. Johnson caught the next plane to L.A. and went directly to Mellman's office.

There, inside Mellman's office, Johnson's world was turned inside out. Life would never be the same again. He was HIV-positive. But how? How in the world could he be HIV-positive? He wasn't gay. Only the gay community was inflicted with this deadly disease. So everyone thought. Now the disease had crept into the heterosexual world. Magic's world. The sports world.

Immediately, Magic's mind flashed to his wife, who was pregnant. He had to make sure Cookie was OK, that the baby was safe. Mellman informed Johnson that he could no longer play basketball, that he would have to retire, that he would need all of his strength to battle this disease, to prolong his life for as long as he could.

The shock of Mellman's words, the suggestion, was numbing. The regular season was one week away and here was Magic, one of the NBA's most beloved players, listening to a doctor tell him he was HIV-positive and would have to retire from the game he loved so dearly.

But Magic refused to believe the test. He said it couldn't be right, it couldn't be true. So he requested another test. That one came up positive, as well. He still didn't believe it. So he requested to take a third test. The results would be in later that week.

For more than a week, Magic was out of the Lakers' lineup, and no one outside the Lakers' family had a clue of what was happening. The team said Johnson had a virus, that he lost some weight, that he was weak, and that he would return when he was ready.

On November 5, as the Lakers were preparing to play the Clippers in the third game of the regular season, Magic told reporters that he was feeling better but was not yet over his flu. Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy told the press that he hoped Johnson would play in the following game, on Sunday, on national TV.

Later that day, the third test results results arrived. This one came up positive too. Magic knew that he would have to tell the world he was HIV-positive and would have to retire from the NBA.

November 7, 1991. Los Angeles. The phone call arrives early in the morning, "2 o'clock press conference, at the Forum," the Lakers' media relations official says. "Major announcement. About Magic."

"The Lakers have scheduled a press conference," a radio announcer says nervously. "The announcement has to do with Magic Johnson, who has been out of the lineup since last week in Utah. Magic could be out for a lot longer than anticipated."

Word arrives to the media that Johnson is ill. Very ill. He is only 32, a veteran of 12 seasons in the NBA, nine of which resulted in trips to the NBA finals, and five of those with NBA championships.

Early in the morning, Johnson telephones his best friends, one after another -- Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan and Pat Riley -- to tell them that he will have to retire, that he is HIV-positive, and that he wanted them to hear it from him, not from a news report.

Magic arrives at the Forum around noon. Dunleavy gathers all the Lakers in the dressing room before the press conference. Magic walks in, dressed in a suit and tie. He breaks the news that he must retire. Everyone breaks down.

The press room is quiet, tense, as Magic walks in. He is grim. He is followed by various Lakers officials. Magic walks to the podium. He bends his head and speaks into the microphone, announcing, "Because of the virus I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers."

The jam-packed room is motionless, stunned, numb. Tears well up in the eyes of many in the room. But there's not a tear a Johnson's eye.

Calm, upbeat and relaxed, Johnson tells reporters that he "will battle this deadly disease," that he will become a national spokesman about HIV because he wants young people to understand "that safe sex is the way to go. We sometimes think only gay people can get it, that it's not going to happen to me," he would say. "And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson."

The question on many reporters' minds is how Magic contracted the disease, but he did not know. How long did he have to live, reporters ask. A few weeks? A few months?

"There is no immediate effect on his life, other than we have advised him to avoid activities which can further impair his immune system," Mellman would tell the press. Mellman says he told Johnson to retire because the rigors of pro basketball would weaken his physical condition and hasten the onset of AIDS.

Reporters wonder about Magic's wife, Cookie, and her pregnancy. Johnson confirms that she is OK, that the baby is OK, that neither of them tested HIV-positive.

Magic's positive demeanor brightens the gloom and doom in the room, at least to a certain degree. "This is not like my life is over because it's not," he tells the crowd. "I'm going to live on. Everything is still the same. I can work out. ... I'll just have to take medication and go on from there."

He smiles. He looks out toward the crammed room of reporters, fans, friends and teammates and says, "This is another challenge in my life. It's like your back is against the wall. And you have to come out swinging. And I'm swinging."

He shows absolutely no trace of self-pity. He tells reporters he still will be around to needle them. "I plan on going on, living for a long time, bugging you guys like I always have," he would say with another huge smile. "You'll see me around. I plan on being with the Lakers. ... Of course, I will miss the battles and the wars, and I will miss you guys. But life goes on."

While people in the crowd wipe away tears, the dry-eyed Johnson concludes the news conference by saying, "I'm going to go on. I'm going to beat this, and I'm going to have fun."